Wednesday, October 20, 2010

CULTURE MOB:: Coffee Shop Confidential: an interview with Climber’s Joe Mengis

Coffee Shop Confidential: an interview with Climber’s Joe Mengis


Music can be a bit like a foreign language. If you don’t speak the language, it’s hard to really understand the beauty and complexities. You see, when two people speak the same “language”, a connection is made. Even though I don’t play music, I had that moment when you really connect with someone as if you both are part of a long lost cosmic tribe. What a relief to stumble upon Joe Mengis of Portland’s veteran indie rock band Climber,

We play phone tag for a week, and eventually hammer out a good time for the interview. After agreeing to meet Joe at his place, I quickly find myself in very familiar territory. I’m standing on the corner of SE 28th, literally two blocks away from the place of my birth. I was born a couple of blocks behind the historic Laurelhurst Theater next to the old Coke factory on the top floor of a duplex. Yes, hippie style.

So, when I meet Joe a couple blocks down in front of his apartment building, I have to smile and chuckle. I go on to explain that my childhood friend David’s house is directly behind his building, and point out his back yard visible from the street. Joe confesses he too is a Portland native growing up over by NE Prescott, before heading east with his family to the Gresham area.

We head up to his small studio jam packed with musical equipment, but quickly head back out to a local coffee shop.

With the last of the October sun pouring in through a nostalgic haze, we find a table and roll into an effortless conversation. Realizing the easy chit-chat will consume our time slot, I pull out the tape recorder and jump in.

Interested in the origins of artists, I ask Joe to recall when it all took off for him. When did he know he wanted to be a professional musician?

“When I knew? I don’t think I ever knew, I don’t even know if I still know,” Joe says and weighs the question for a moment. “I guess, I um… it was something I wanted to do when I was in high school, like in my high school years, I was like, ‘Whatta you want to be when you grow up? I’m gonna go to music school and be a professional musician.’”

He goes on to admit that he wanted to be a professional percussionist in an orchestra. “Yeah, like the Oregon symphony would have been perfect. I mean at that time, it was my dream job outside of playing drums on the Tonight show, that’s where my brain was at… I was in high school, you know?” He continues through the time-line after school and explains that as life went on it changed. “It has kinda morphed from, ‘I want to be a professional musician’, to ‘I really enjoy the fact I get to do music’.”

They love me in Japan!
I switch gears and dive into Japan. After hearing some time ago about his adventures there on a major tour with solo artist Becca (Summer Sonic ’08), I’m excited to get to the details. “It was a mind blower! I mean, it was like… first off, everyone there and everyone I met was awwwwesome!”

I soon learn his experience was very comfortable despite being on a tight itinerary. “It was an eleven a.m. call for the most part, and from an eleven a.m. it was a full day schedule… a lot of hurry up and wait. But for me, it was my first time on tour and at festivals like that, you know? Playing Summer Sonic was awesome!” Feeling like a loser having never heard of the music festival before, I ask for more info as I scribble on a notepad. I learn Summer Sonic is a major music festival bouncing between the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, drawing massive crowds and top shelf talent. I learn half the bands play in one city, with the other half doing the same, and then swap the next day. Burning with curiosity, I ask if he had any favorites.

“Alicia Keys,” Joe admits and nods with reverence. I pop with excitement and find myself becoming more impressed. With a long list of some of the raddest bands on the planet, including MGMT lurking around his hotel, I know I could talk all day about Summer Sonic. Instead, I jump into another juicy nugget I’d heard about Joe.

School of Rock's new location on SE Hawthorne.
Joe not only teaches private lessons three days a week, but he also holds a position as assistant director of band at the School of Rock. “It’s my favorite thing of all time. Right this second, it’s my favorite thing ever – I love it,” he says of the kids and lights up like a Christmas tree.

According to Joe, the kids bounce between private lessons and band sessions for three or four months until the goal of a live performance is reached. Joe delves into more detail about the inner workings of the program. “Yeah, they’re taking private lessons, they’re in a band, they also have theory classes, like Rock 101, and for kids just starting out, they go to that. We also, on Saturdays, are starting song writing/studio…” I suddenly have the urge throw up a high five, but I let Joe finish his thought. “…I can’t even contain how excited I am about it… teaching these kids studio and song writing at the same time, first off, is so progressive, I mean, that’s how people write now.”

I nod in agreement at his revelation, but a question is knocking at the back door of my brain. I ask if there is a kid who reminds him of himself at that age, and Joe smiles as he looks away to contemplate. “Yes, there is one in particular that is me at that age, yeah… one hundred percent.” I want to ask who this kid is, as I watch his face go through a series of changes, but I can tell he’s going to keep this little gem to himself.

The interview soon maneuvers away from the school and touches on a variety of subjects ranging from the Portland music scene, to favorite venues, and of course, the new album The Mystic.

I would love to include it all, so instead, I leave you with one of the best quotes I’ve heard all year. On the tail end of talking about an extinct club called the Blackbird and the regulars, Joe seems to wrap up the human experience in one swift blow: “I love people, being people.”

Last man standing...

By the way, Climber’s sophomore effort The Mystic is officially my new favorite EP of the moment. I’ve listened to the CD so much, I’ve had to cut back and use it only as a reward for good behavior.

The CD can be purchased through the website, and I’ve also included an interesting write up from

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